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Research centre aims to advance smart manufacturing in UK

02 December, 2021

A new national robotics research centre is being set up to advance smart manufacturing in the UK by eliminating barriers and accelerating the widespread use of smart collaborative robotics technologies. The aim of the Made Smarter Innovation Research Centre for Smart, Collaborative Industrial Robotics is to unlock the potential of the UK industry in terms of productivity, quality and adaptability.

The centre, led by Loughborough University, will bring together experts from Cranfield University, as well as the Universities of Strathclyde, Warwick and Bristol. It will also involve organisations from a wide spectrum of UK industrial sectors, including aerospace, automotive, agri-food, green energy and construction.

The centre will receive a share of £25m of government funding aimed at improving collaborative technology and helping businesses to unlock the potential of automated manufacturing. It is one of five university-led research centres funded by UKRI and Made Smarter as part of a wider £300m partnership between government, industry, Catapults and academia, led by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Innovation Strategy.

The centre will create a multi-disciplinary, cross-sectoral hub that aims to set the national research agenda for smart, collaborative industrial robotics, and to deliver the next generation of automated factories. It will perform fundamental research to seed the breakthrough technologies needed to make automation more responsive, collaborative and safe. It will also carry out industry-initiated feasibility demonstration projects to raise awareness of emerging automation capabilities.

“I am very excited that our centre has received the support from nearly 50 national and international organisations including SMEs, large end-users, technology providers, systems integrators, and research organisations,” says the project leader, Dr Niels Lohse of Loughborough’s Wolfson School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering. “Even before the centre has been officially launched, more companies are looking to join.”

The centre’s priority areas for research and innovation will include:
Collaboration Robotic systems need better models of how people interact to start truly collaborating with them and leverage their strengths.
Autonomy Robots need to extend their sensory perception and autonomous cognition capabilities to carry out increasingly complex tasks, and to deal with variations and disruptive changes.
Responsiveness The process of designing, verifying, validating, deploying and operating automation systems needs to become more accessible to a wider range of people and organisations.
Acceptance The societal, cultural, and economic impact of automation needs to be explored better to inform future policy, regulations, and education requirements.

“Automation increases productivity, safeguards manufacturing, creates and protects jobs,” says Lohse. “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for greater responsiveness and resilience. With disruptions to supply chains and workforce availability, collaborative robot sales more than doubled – but the UK remains significantly behind other highly industrialised nations.

“While there is a huge appetite for the benefits of industrial automation, its full potential remains untapped,” he adds. “The perceived and actual high initial investment cost for specialised, automation equipment is a significant barrier for wider adoption.

Lohse: bringing the automation community together is essential to addressing the challenges that face UK industry

“The need for highly specialised skill sets limits the design, implementation, and maintenance of automation,” Lohse continues. “Specialised equipment is often too inflexible particularly for SMEs with modifications being either too expensive or impractical. People and automation are separated by inflexible safety, regulatory, procedural, physical, and psychological barriers preventing effective collaboration.

Dr Lohse believes that “bringing the automation community together will be essential for addressing the unique challenges faced by UK industry to unlock the full potential of their highly skilled workforce through automation and digital technology”.

As part of its contribution to the new centre, the team from the University of Warwick will emulate near-real production and product quality using digital twins for accurate validation to enable right-first-time and near-zero-defect manufacturing. The digital twins will be integrated with AR/VR to facilitate new ways of working with industrial robotic systems.

“Collaborative working among human operators, robots and other manufacturing machineries raises many research challenges,” comments Professor Xiu Yan of Strathclyde University’s Department of Design, Manufacturing and Engineering Management, is the University’s lead investigator in the project. “This distributed research centre will become a great enabler for investigating new ways of configuring and reconfiguring these ‘actors’ for different manufacturing tasks. It will be exciting to tackle the challenges faced by multiple sectors from both technological and legal perspectives and see the solutions we can produce.”

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